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Chasing Our Swallowtail

My 2021 field season started quite a bit later than I'd planned, and sadly I had to skip a trip to the Illinois River in April in search of Spring Whites. That trip wasn't delayed by any of the usual things--not foul weather, nor forest fires, no personal crisis, nothing like that. No--I had walked into the opened-up back hatch of my Subaru and gave myself a concussion. Being tall has its advantages, and... Some of my friends suggested that perhaps in the future I should wear a helmet while packing my car. When my neck and brain finally were healed enough to allow me to get out in the field, I was excited. I had truly been missing my time in nature.


This would be my 7th attempt to photograph our state insect, the Oregon Swallowtail (Papilio machaon oregonia). The Oregon Swallowtail is a creature of dry river canyons in Eastern Oregon and Washington. It looks quite similar to the much more common Anise Swallowtail, save for some subtle differences. The Anise Swallowtail has narrow yellow stripes on the sides of the body, whereas the Oregon Swallowtail has very broad horizontal yellow bands. The Anise has small "eyespots" near the tails on the hindwing, with black spots in the center of red spots. On the Oregon, these eyespots have black spots at the edge of the red spots. The Oregon Swallowtail is also larger and slightly different shade of yellow. These differences are not so obvious that you can ID them on the wing unless you are quite close, and know what you are looking for.


My friend Rob Santry suggested I try looking at the boat launch at Mack's Canyon Campground, at the north end of the access road that runs along the Deschutes River, north from Sherar's Bridge. He hadn't steered me wrong before, so I headed straight up there. The day was sunny and it was 80 degrees before noon. The light was good and I was feeling optimistic. The first butterfly of the day was a brand-spanking fresh Boisduval's Blue, coming for some beach time, and the sunlight and minerals salts available there.

Boisduvals Blue, soaking in some sun.
Ventral view of Boisduval's Blue

Before long, a fresh Indra Swallowtail flew in, making a bee-line for the wet sand. It was so fresh that I wondered how it was so certain where that wet sandy beach was. Could such a youngster already have been there? Maybe it was born yesterday. I took this early swallowtail sighting was a good sign and hoped for more.

Indra Swallowtail, imbibing mineral laden moisture from the gravel

I didn't have to wait long for the next swallowtail species to show. In fact, when they showed, the Anise Swallowtails came in numbers. At first glance, from the shady bench where I was watching the wet sand, I thought this could be the Oregon Swallowtail. My pulse quickened. Could I be so lucky as to have it show up in the first half hour? Well, no. As the third and fourth and fifth and sixth Anise came down to the beach, I checked each one for the telltale marks. Nope, Anise. No, not this one. No, this is Anise also. I'm never that disappointed to be in a beautiful place, photographing beautiful butterflies, so not seeing my target was only a dip in the road.


An Anise Swallowtail, as pristine as they come.

Over a couple of days I saw many Anise Swallowtails, and a few more Indra Swallowtails. I focused on photographing them, even as additional species found their way to the wet sand (Juba Skipper, Gray Hairstreak, Columbian Blue, Mourning Cloak), since the swallowtails were so fresh and so cooperative.


Anise Swallowtail, showing off it's bold ventral markings.

Later in the day, I took a scouting walk up Mack's Canyon itself. I couldn't recall having walked up that canyon before, so I ventured up. I was pleased to see Pale Crescent, Large Marble, Columbian Blue, Acmon Blue, Silvery Blue, and many Sagebrush Checkerspots. There were wild tarragon plants scattered around the canyon floor, these being the host plant for the Oregon Swallowtail. Wild tarragon doesn't look or smell terribly different from the more familiar culinary tarragon, and it stands out from its gray-green sagebrush cousins by being deep green and finely leaved.


The next morning, I went back to the little sandy beach at the boat launch. It was cool and cloudy, but being stubborn, I just sat down and waited for the clouds to part. Luckily, and to my surprise, the clouds did part, and the beach was again bathed in bright sun. Overall, fewer butterflies came compared to the previous day, likely due to the cool, gray morning and delayed warmth. Most of the same species as the day before showed up one after the other. I was keeping an eye on the swallowtails, which were much more active in the early afternoon heat, when a huge Two-Tailed Swallowtail sailed in. It headed right for the spot where a couple of Anise Swallowtails and an Indra were already mud-puddling. Rather than settling in next to them, it repeatedly landed literally on top of one of the Anise Swallowtails. If I were to commit the scientific faux pas of assigning human motives to insects, I would say this huge Two-Tailed Swallowtail was bullying the smaller Anise Swallowtail, simply because "he" could (bullies are usually male, right?). I wanted to smack him upside the head, but refrained. I figured he wouldn't get my point. So I just watched his huge, pristine yellow and black self lording it over the little guys.


Two-Tailed Swallowtail, joining the puddle club

After about an hour of not seeing any Oregon Swallowtails, the activity on the beach waned and I decided to take a walk up Gert Canyon, a few miles to the south. I like this walk because the upper creek usually has water in it this time of year, which supports both wildflowers and butterflies, and the views are quite lovely. I also just needed some exercise after sitting and kneeling for so long on the beach.


On the walk up the canyon, I enjoyed many additional species, including Julia's Orangetip, Large Marble, Echo Azure, and Mylitta Crescent. Near the head of the canyon, I found this Indra Swallowtail nectaring on the plentiful Balsamroot flowers.



Okay, our state insect still eludes me, but it's kind of like the game I used to play with my friends. "Hey, can I taste your ice cream cone? I want to see if I like it." "Okay, here, take a bite." Bite # 1. "Hmmm. Not sure if I really like it. I think I need another bite." Bite # 2. "Hmmmm. I think I like it, but I need a larger sample size." Ice cream owner now loudly protesting, and trying to wrest said ice cream cone from my grip.


My annual trips to Deschutes Canyon are something I always look forward to. I love the place. I love the smells of sage and river water. I love hearing the Chukars chuck-a-lucking up on the hillsides, and the descending notes of the Canyon Wren song echoing down from above. I love the layers upon layers of red-hued rim rock lining the canyon walls, and the flush of green grass from the spring rains. That's the cake thats on offer there, and I always enjoy it. One day there will be frosting on the cake, and it will taste all the better for the previous efforts that led me to it.


Oh, and next spring, I'll try to remember to duck when I'm walking towards the open back of my Subaru.


Mack's Canyon Boat Launch List:


Mack's Canyon List:

Gert Canyon List:



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